Sport

Try not to choke

Neil Manthorp

Graeme Smith has heard a hundred times about the need for his team to "relax", and Shaun Pollock heard it before him, too.

Sometime after the 2003 World Cup, during which South Africa’s ability to cover themselves in ignominy at International Cricket Council (ICC) world events reached a peak, a producer at SuperSport had the excellent idea to produce a documentary investigating the team’s inability to perform at their best in these events.

Even back then, six or seven years ago, cricket supporters had grown weary of being seduced by the opening of a fine box of Havana cigars but never being able to sample one. He decided to explore the phenomenon of choking. Fact or fiction, nightmare or myth? It was time to ask the hard questions. So he did.

Most of the answers were not what he had expected. Starting with the 1996 World Cup on the subcontinent, where Bob Woolmer’s team were eliminated at the quarterfinal stage by a brilliant Brian Lara century, and working through the 1999 World Cup in England to the 2003 event on home soil, he gave the players the chance to make as many excuses as they cared to.

But they did not. Most of them, particularly those who had retired or were on the verge of doing so, admitted that attitudes and approaches had changed on the big stage and that it had been a problem—a significant problem. None, however, could point a finger at exactly what had gone wrong.

Everybody was aware soon after the major tournaments had started that “something wasn’t quite right” but they couldn’t identify it, let alone put it right. Everybody gave examples of little things that niggled them and teammates—too many functions, strangers in the team room, changes in preparation routines—all distraction that reminded them constantly that this was not “just another tournament”.

Halfway through the programme’s production its contents were reviewed by the producer’s bosses and they changed their minds about airing it. It was not, they reasoned, what their viewers wanted to see or hear. Not good for morale, a bit too much truth and honesty. So it was canned and remains on the cutting-room floor.

Who knows, but Graeme Smith’s team might have landed in the Caribbean earlier this week with some valuable research and lessons learned if the project had been seen through to the end. At least the Proteas captain has adopted a philosophical approach to the ICC T20 World Cup, which begins in earnest for them with their first group match against India on Sunday.

“Our record is just something that we are going to have to live with until we put it right by winning one of these events,” he said. “I’ve been involved in more discussions on this subject than almost any other since I became captain. I wouldn’t say I’m sick of the talking, but I’m certainly looking forward to doing the doing.”

Smith has heard a hundred times about the need for his team to “relax”, and Shaun Pollock heard it before him, too. The secret is knowing how to relax—not that it is a good idea.

Smith also made the point that his squad had not had as much preparation time as they might have liked but that may very well work in their favour. Too much thinking time can lead to “paralysis by analysis”, which is the last thing they need given how intense the choke-watch brief has become for the world’s cricket media when South Africa start one of these tournaments.

The fact that only four or five Proteas out of a contracted 19 had any meaningful game time, let alone made meaningful contributions, during the Indian Premier League (IPL) was comfortably offset by the fact that they have been training and “thinking” 20-over cricket for the past six weeks. But, more important, perhaps is the fact that they will be able to throw off the plasticity and meaninglessness of the tournament (in a format they all enjoy) for one which means everything.

“Playing for your country means everything,” said Jacques Kallis after collecting the award for “most consistent player” at the IPL’s humorously nauseating awards ceremony. “Nothing beats representing your country. This is the real thing.”

Kallis carefully steered clear of saying that the IPL wasn’t the real thing, but when cocktail parties and sponsors’ functions are so thick on the ground between games that they blur into one giant “survivathon”, the prospect of flying 24 hours to get to the Caribbean for another T20 tournament—in the real world—is as good as switching off Big Brother on the television.

The ICC has been criticised a lot in the past decade for its ineffectiveness and procrastination, and rightly so. But one thing they have done consistently well is look after the players during their tournaments, which makes them feel special and, far more often than not, results in optimal performance.

Unlike England, South Africa have at least won one ICC tournament out of the past 20. Remember the inaugural Champions Trophy in Bangladesh in 1998? No, not many do. There were limited expectations back then and, realistically, there should be this time, too.

Pakistan are defending champions, India and Sri Lanka are red hot, the West Indies are hosts and New Zealand are perennial semifinalists at these things. Let’s just hope that Smith’s boys are not catastrophically embarrassed by Afghanistan in their second group match and take it from there. (No, seriously. Afghanistan qualified. Really.) Get past them and anything could happen.

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